"The Duke of Wellington was a gentleman," said Timmy.Woolf is invoking here an idea of Freud's that jokes are the means by which threatening, frightening or taboo'd elements in the subconscious mind can be given safe release into the conscious, and thus public, arena. (Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious. Trans. James Strachey, London, 1960. New York: Norton.)
"Lord Salisbury was."
"And what about God?" said Jacob.
The Scilly Isles now appeared as if directly pointed at by a golden finger issuing from a cloud; and everybody knows how portentous that sight is, and how these broad rays, whether they light upon the Scilly Isles or upon the tombs of crusaders in cathedrals, always shake the very foundations of scepticism and lead to jokes about God.
The point in Woolf's text is that 'scepticism' (to wit, doctrinal anti-religious conviction) is a position of mental safety: a firm ground of conviction and belief which allows the sceptical mind to keep the dangerous & threatening ideas in its subconscious part, safely labelled, categorised, taboo'd, and, thus, controlled. However, when experience confronts the sceptic (or, the cynic) with some unexpected event ― such as a natural phenomenon, a passage of writing, a personal tragedy or epiphany ― then the safety of doctrine is unsettled, and suddenly discomforted mind reacts: perhaps with fear, perhaps with an attack against the cause of the unease, but perhaps with a (slightly desperate) joke.
This, then, is just the position which Douglas Coupland uses as his literary point of departure for Hey Nostradamus! As detailed in lecture, for an over-determined complex of reasons ― biographical, cultural, artistic, experiential ― Coupland engages the world with a consistent ambiguity by which he is able to avoid adversarial, dogmatic, or ideological certainties. This is iconically represented by the book's cover, as detailed in this earlier post.
To me, one of the most interesting places to be is the friction point between secular and orthodox cultures. (Douglas Coupland: Interview by Graeme Green. Clash magazine. Issue 6. Jan/Feb 2005)Coupland uses religion explicitly in Hey Nostradamus! (he approaches the subject more obliquely in other texts, such as his newest, jPod) as a literary device by which to actually create the destabilisation that his text promotes. Through artistic use of the God taboo, Coupland's text invokes the Freudian unease in readers who have the mentality of dogmatic certainty which is portrayed antagonistically in Hey Nostradamus!.
Fundamentalist Christian readers, for instance, will have a disturbed reaction to the unfavourable and, perhaps, blasphemous portrayal of the Christian protagonists; while Fundamentally Secular readers, say, will be at least as angered and unsettled by Coupland's consistently favourable representation of Theism at the plain surface of the novel.
The ultimate message for us, of course, is the nature of fiction, and the manifold artistic ways in which ideas are represented in art. Douglas Coupland's artistic genius is of a very particular type: all the furniture of the digital age is commandingly within his scope, and, for me, gloriously, he transmutes the universe of 'Generation Internet' into understanding.
And, more importantly yet, as Orwell said of Charles Dickens, Coupland's fiction has the power to oppose "....all the smelly little orthodoxies which are even now contending for our souls.'